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14U/16U: Are You a Complete Player?

04/17/2024, 10:30am MDT
By Michael Rand

The 200-Foot Player

There was a time in hockey when being a 100-foot player, roughly speaking, was enough.

Defensemen were generally encouraged to play it safe instead of jumping up into the rush. Their main objective was to keep pucks out of harm’s way and funnel them to offensive players.

Those centers and wings, in turn, would concentrate on moving up ice and putting the puck in the opposing net.

The groups weren’t restricted to their own sides of the red line, but their roles were clear.

In modern hockey, though, the lines are blurred. The expectation is that all five skaters will aspire to be 200-foot players capable of blending roles and supporting play in all zones. And it is vital that coaches are teaching players accordingly, says Scott Paluch, a director of player development for USA Hockey.

In a recent conversation with Paluch, the nuances of the 200-foot player became clear.

Defining What it is

Paluch says the type of player described by the term “200-foot player” has stayed the same, but the “vernacular and different lingo has kind of evolved in the last five to seven years.”

A good way to think of it?

“It’s a term for a complete player,” Paluch says.

And what does Paluch mean by that?

“When players step on the ice we always talk about the four roles of hockey: offense with the puck, offense without the puck, defense on the puck and defense away from the puck,” he says. Be good when they have the puck offensively, but more importantly, be a great player without the puck finding space and being supportive offensively. And do the same thing defensively.”

Coaches Lead the Way

But particularly at the youth levels, teaching the concept of being a 200-foot player can be a challenge. Young players gravitate toward the puck, leaving gaps in the support roles on offense and defense.

That’s where intentionality in coaching comes into play, Paluch says – particularly when dealing with players at 14U and 16U.

“This is a time when coaches really need to be active in this in terms of putting them in training situations to become complete hockey players,” Paluch says. “We spend a lot of time training players with the puck and certainly we train players defensively on the puck. What we don't do a good enough job at is training to support other players both offensively and defensively.”

Teaching in this way, Paluch says, is not about systems. It’s about showing players how they can react to certain situations away from the puck to support on offense and defense. Drills that force players to locate the puck, find other players and think about where they are going to be most effective in support are critical.

“It’s a great time to train players to become complete players in all aspects of the game, and I think a lot of it has to do with coaches providing that type of training environment,” Paluch says. “I think when players are in constant battle situations where someone's going to win a puck, someone's going to lose a puck and then there’s a decision on how to react and where to go after that, they succeed. That's happening so frequently in our game.”

A Mental and Physical Challenge

Is becoming a 200-foot player more a question of having the physical tools or thinking the game a certain way?

It’s both, Paluch says.

“Certainly the physical tools of the game are important,” he says. “Being able to move around the ice is key. With skating, the pace of the game is certainly an important piece of it.”

Thinking about the game a certain way, too, is essential.

“You need to cognitively be a player who can really assess the information and make the proper decision quickly. That's ultimately what's happened in our game,” Paluch says. “Players who are making the quicker and better decisions are usually the ones that are finding themselves in better situations as a game and as seasons go on.”

A lot of that happens in transition – those quick changes from defense to offense that seem to get faster every year.

“It has to do with somebody who is really quick at recognizing transition, getting back quickly, filling the right areas to help the defenseman out or whoever is back there, to create a superior situation,” Paluch says. “If we turn pucks over now we go back the other way, it’s usually pretty quick because players are recognizing it and getting open quickly.”

The Evolving Game

As already noted, this isn’t how hockey was always played.

“I think the game has certainly changed now from 25 or 30 years ago,” Paluch says. “The offensive players were the ones asked to provide most of the offense, while defensive players had their role defensively and weren't asked to do much offensively. And certainly what we've seen is the game has evolved to where there's five players involved offensively.”

He says some of the change is a response to the trapping, defensive style of play that became fashionable in the 1990s and early 2000s after a previous era of high-octane, free-flowing offenses.

“I think a major way to combat that was getting more players involved offensively in interchanging offensive areas,” Paluch says, “making it much more difficult for players to statically play defense and defend a zone of the ice. This was able to create more openings, get more players involved.”

Paluch says the next step in the evolution will be adding more off-the-puck defensive awareness to the evolving games of more forwards. At that point, hockey will feel at times like it’s positionless.

“Certainly the game is not completely positionless in terms of we have players that do need an area of reference, especially when play is being started,” Paluch says. “But the game evolves, the play evolves. The players who are really excelling are the ones who can recognize all four roles of the game and switch quickly between them.”

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